Beyond These Academic Walls: Community-Engaged Music Theory
Is your academic work important beyond these walls? Does your research resonate with people outside of your scholarly circle? Does it matter to the public? These could be pretty confronting, even haunting, questions for some. If you’re brave enough to ask them, what would your answers be?
Music theory, which seeks to identify and define general principles of music, often using only music itself, might be seen as particularly ill-positioned for addressing such concerns. Yet music theorist Professor J. Daniel Jenkins recently shared his own answers to these questions with Duke graduate students: “Yes!” For a number of years, Dr. Jenkins, Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of South Carolina, has been taking his expertise in music theory into Lee Correctional Institution near Bishopville, South Carolina, the state's largest maximum-security prison. He has designed curricula to meet the specific educational needs of the inmates and has been joined in the prison by his graduate students at the University of South Carolina School of Music.
As the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Public Music Theory, Professor Jenkins is a leading light in the area of community-engaged music theory, an important emerging field of musical thought and practice. His work at the Lee Correctional Institution is just one example of how his approach makes a difference in the community. Thanks in part to The Graduate School's Professional Development Grant, Professor Jenkins was able to share his experiences and insights in February as part of the Music Graduate Student Association's Talk Music series, a student-run program of presentations on diverse topics relevant to graduate students in music studies.
Professor Jenkins began his work at the prison by surveying the inmates’ prior knowledge of making music. Jenkins discovered that many inmates were already familiar with song-chart notation—a widely practiced form of music notation in popular music performance—and were interested to learn more about Western classical music. In response, Jenkins and his graduate students created a composition project that offered inmates and students the opportunity to collaborate on five new compositions. After a series of sessions via teleconferencing between USC and Lee, the semester ended with the graduate students traveling to the prison for the final concert featuring the compositions that had been created during joint sessions throughout the semester. The final concert reflected the rich learning environment that had been cultivated between the students and inmates who had learned from each other in the collaborative process of composition.
Jenkins shared testimonials from graduate students and inmates alike. Although the final concert displayed the result of an understanding of musical practice and creative composition, the parallel takeaways revealed ways in which the art of music can open avenues of collaboration in seemingly incongruent environments. For example, one student commented, “I did not sense nervousness from the inmates because they were really enjoying performing for the audience. This was something that I need to learn: to enjoy music.” Another student said, “The rehearsal and performance experience itself is now one of my most treasured musical memories." These testimonials reveal the ways in which music theory instruction beyond the walls of the academic institution effected a musical experience that further enhanced the students’ own development as professional musicians.
After the formal presentation, Professor Jenkins warmly engaged with the Duke students as questions arose about bringing academic training into the broader public sphere, as well as the personal and emotional investment required for such activities. Annie Koppes, a Ph.D. student in musicology, reflected, “I was very impressed with Professor Jenkins’ altruistic vision for activism in music. It can be easy to overlook carceral programs as a site for impact through the arts, and Professor Jenkins’ presentation proved inspiring.” As community-engaged music studies gain more recognition in academic discussions, Professor Jenkins's insightful discussion of his own involvement promoted a feeling of encouragement and inspiration for our colleagues in the music department who are seeking ways to promote musical scholarship at Duke and beyond these academic walls.
Ph.D. student, Music
Lacie Eades is a second-year Ph.D. student in musicology. She conducts research in seventeenth-century Western classical music as well as 1960s rock music. Lacie holds a Master of Music in Musicology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a Master of Education in Teaching and Technology from William Woods University, and a Bachelor of Music Education with an emphasis in piano and voice from Southeast Missouri State University. Prior to pursuing graduate studies in musicology, she taught choir and general music in the Missouri public school system for over a decade.
Ph.D. student, Music
Chris Williams is an Australian composer, currently in his second year of the Ph.D. program at Duke. He completed his undergraduate studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, then a Master of Philosophy in composition at the University of Oxford, before working for the central music library of the BBC, in London.